24 hours of horseshoe hell is truly an amazing event and a test of mental and physical toughness, there is nothing else like it out there. A grassroots, hometown event executed flawlessly by event coordinators. This was my first trip and a quick one, but along with my partner Brent Perkins, we finished 2nd overall in the team event being taken down by tough conditions and the power team of Sonnie Trotter and Tommy Caldwell. This year over 40 competitors completed over 100 pitches during the 24 hour period.
One of a Kind: 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell - Stephen Meinhold
I spent the two months prior to 24HHH training for 4 comps in 4 weekends: UBC tour stop Seattle; 24HHH; Portland Boulder Rally; and finally, SBP Bouldering Challenge. My training was mainly geared toward indoor bouldering, but my overall goal was to improve my all-day fitness. I had no clue what I was in for; I just knew Brent Perkins, my teammate for the event, had the plan. He won 24HHH last year, so I figured that the best I could do is show up and keep up.
As I was packing the Monday before 24HHH, I remember feeling intimidated by the task ahead. What did I get myself into? Could I even finish? I’ve been exclusively bouldering for the past few years, so I was less than confident in my rope-climbing abilities. My lackluster finish at the UBC tour bouldering competition in Seattle left me with a sense of defeat and feeling the need for redemption. This motivation (and the fact that it was too late to back out) helped me flip the switch. I decided it was too late to worry. I just needed to show up and keep up.
I decided to make it a quick trip because this was also my first week of school, and I wanted to miss as little class as possible. My gear setup for the comp was fast and light thanks to Mountain Hardwear and Petzl. I hardly noticed the 15 Ange draws, Nao headlamp, hiroundus harness, chalkbag, and grigri 2 in my carry-on. My full 24 hour climbing setup probably weighed less than my ProBars and food. One redeye to Atlanta, then a puddle jumper to Little Rock… Hello Arkansas. Brent made a last minute post that I needed a ride from the airport, and event volunteers Chris and Tim came to the rescue. I LOVE THE SOUTH. The drive was humid with a side of rain, but I remained hopeful for good weather at our destination.
I was greeted by sunshine and beer upon arrival at the ranch, and I was a happy camper. I caught up with Brent and after seeing some friendly faces and meeting a few more, we eventually walked to the cliff and scouted out the first half (12 hours) of our game plan. As soon as I saw the first routes, I knew we would be in good shape. SANDSTONE - nothing like it. I love it. At first glance, every route looked amazing. The crags looked like slightly shorter versions of my favorite climbing in the world, the New River Gorge. The sandstone was bullet hard with a perfect 60 grit texture wrapped around textbook rounded edges and jug flakes. I could look up and almost feel the holds as Brent was spraying me down with beta on a handful of climbs on our ticklist. We looked at about 10 5.12’s, along with the crags that they were attached to, and it was a little intimidating to know that I would be climbing all of it… twice. My confidence was humbled, but I was hungry for the challenge.
The morning of 24HHH, the grandeur of the event settled in, and I finally realized what we were attempting to do. Brent was fresh off a trip to Rifle, and he crushed last year so he knew he could make it. In contrast, this was my first time to the ranch. I had been sport climbing about 5 times a year for the past few years, so I was a little skeptical about pulling this off. As the anticipation for the event builds, so does the camaraderie. The best thing about this competition was that it equal for all: can you climb for 24 hours?
Out of the gates, I was cruising. I flashed a 10a, 12a, 12b, 12d, 12b and 12c. I didn’t feel invincible, but I was feeling like all of my training had paid off. Brent was keeping a strong pace, and it seemed like I was the only thing slowing him down. Nevertheless, we were able to keep a quick pace early on. About 20 pitches in, I was wondering if I would have a no fall day. Not long after this internal conversation, I took a whipper on an 11c slab at the 2nd bolt and tweaked my ankle in the process. No more need to worry about a no fall day. I hopped back on the horse and about 5 hours and 60 pitches later, the next epic came: the rain. I was amazed it didn’t come earlier because things looked ominous most of the afternoon, and the downpour the night before confirmed rain was in the forecast. I was more amazed by the size of the jugs on the top of the climbs at the north 40 while climbing in the rain. I have climbed on wet sandstone plenty of times before and hoped that it wouldn’t be a skill that I had to use, but it came in pretty handy. There were a couple 5.12’s we wanted to hit before they started to seep, so we forged on through the rain, thunder, and hell.
The rain stopped just in time for darkness to settle in, and as things dried up people started climbing again. As long as the clock was ticking I was trying to keep up with Brent. We finished up our first 12 hour scorecard with a couple of ego boosters at the north 40, turned in our cards, and then headed to the goat cave. At this point we started to slow. At 2:00 am you question why you continue to push yourself. The hiking and steep terrain at the goat cave dropped our pitch per hour count. I knew that I needed the steep points, but I didn’t have much left. We left the goat cave around 3: 00 am, with six pitches of 12b and a couple pitches of 5.11, to head to the far east. Another 15 minute hike brought us to two tall and techy 5.12c’s. We were now on the other side of the gorge where things were more vert and taller. We were the lone souls here, except for a couple small groups of volunteers who would periodically come visit for a chat or to make sure we were sane. The first one went down, but the vertical climbing was more demanding, especially at night. I really benefited from the reactive lighting on the Petzl Nao when looking from my handholds to footholds. Nothing would seem washed out, but I could see any distance I needed on the rock.
Next up was Supersoul Sureshot. This is the most amazing looking line at the ranch, even in the dark. Perfect light grey, clean sandstone peppered with enough edges to make a very technical sequence. First try, Brent fell up high at the redpoint crux. He lowered, and then I was up. I pumped myself up then started and fell about 12 feet up at the first crux, which was a big pull with a bad edge. I lowered, realizing that this climb would take a serious effort.
4:15 am. I touch Supersoul Sureshot’s holds again, feeling the sting of 70+ pitches already climbed. I tighten my grip on the holds, step on, and execute the first boulder problem. I get a small shake long enough for Brent to start feeding me beta for the rest of the route. Two more very facey boulder problems that even Mikey Williams couldn’t send first go brought me to a precarious shake before the redpoint crux. Left hand on a not so great sidepull, right hand on an edge. I manage to chalk up but know I need to keep moving. Pulling to the first edge was manageable, but as I focused on the next foot I knew things were about to get real. Right foot dime edge at my waste. This put me off balance but gave me the distance to stab the next right hand gaston. I snag it with 2 fingers screaming. Pure rage was the only thing holding me on. I reset to get a 4 finger purchase, then slopped my left foot up and eyed up the redpoint dyno. I rush and fling myself at the victory jug in rage and slap it enough to realize how big of a hold I just fell off of. Failure sets in, and I let the world know with a few choice words and a shoe pitch that Nolan Ryan would be proud of. I wanted that one.
Brent is next up, and he sends with similar rage. We take a break and I’m not going to give this one another go, so Brent fired it again and we moved on. The next climbs were hard, technical, and damp. It kept the mood somber. We turned into machines - climb, drink water, climb, eat, climb, cheer at every hour mark with those still awake in the gorge, climb, drink water, climb… The next thing we knew it was getting light out. One climb with headlamps, then the next you didn’t need them. We had one more 12a, then finally some climbs under 5.11 to finish off on. We took it to the wire, firing off over 20 pitches in the last hour. We kept a quick pace back to the trading post and joined with others emerging from the woods after battle. Scorecards were in at 10am, 24 hours later.
I should have spent the next hour finding a nest to hibernate into, but instead I stayed at the trading post in a high from surviving hell with many others. War stories were recapped from the night before, and whippers told over beers. The sleep deprived climbers were all proud to say that we all made it together. In the end Brent and I ended up 2nd behind Tommy and Sonnie, who put on a good show as well. Last I heard, 41 people climbed over 100 pitches (you could climb each route twice). I finished with 99, Brent with 108. It was still a win for me; it was my best day of 1st try climbing ever. I flashed or onsighted 44 routes, 15 routes 5.12a-d and 16 routes 5.11a-d. Of the 99 pitches I climbed, I would only consider one or two to be poor in quality. Overall every route was a ton of fun on perfect sandstone and fun even when wet. This is a great event with a real home grown feel, and the competition is about finishing, not finishing first. There is no other event out there close to what this is, and I hope to see everyone there next year.